BILL CLINTON’S visit to India in 2000 was, by all accounts, fun. The President frolicked with peasant women while being showered with flower petals, bought three carpets with his Visa card, toured the Taj Mahal and marvelled at ceremonial elephants and Bengal tigers.
When George Bush arrives today, however, there will be room for little but work. A planeload of America’s top chief executive officers will not be far behind him for a trip that is all about forging closer economic relations between the world’s two largest democracies.
Optimism was mounting before their arrival that the two countries would sign a deal designed to legitimise India’s civil nuclear programme, allowing the world’s largest democracy to buy nuclear technology and fuel despite concern over its weapons programme.
Mr Bush has already indicated — slightly wistfully — that there will be no sightseeing around the Taj Mahal. Instead there will be meetings with the country’s leading politicians and the CEO Forum, established last year by US and Indian companies.
Although US trade with India lags far behind that with China it is expanding rapidly: exports to India rose by more than 30 per cent last year while Indian exports to America have grown sixfold since 1985 to $13 billion (£7.4 billion). More than half of the Fortune 500 list of major US companies have out-sourced some of their information technology work to India, where the economy has enjoyed growth rates of 7 per cent for the past four years.
The Bush Administration has recognised the strategic importance of an alliance with India, an Asian democracy with 150 million Muslims.
The nuclear deal with Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, could be worth upwards of $20 billion (£11.4 billion). The proposals were floated after the two met in Washington last July when Mr Bush promised to pass legislation allowing civilian nuclear technology to be shared with India if it separated its civilian and military programmes.
India, which has an acute energy shortage, would open its civilian nuclear plants to international observers. Its weapons programme would be legitimised even though the country has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
“I’m reasonably confident it’s going to happen,” K. Subrahmanyam, the head of the National Security Council Advisory Board — an expert panel for the Indian Government — told reporters in Delhi.
“Neither can afford not to have an agreement,” he said.
The deal would go some way towards easing concerns over India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. US Administration officials now talk about securing a “mutual vision for defence security”.
They are mindful not only of India’s proximity to Afghanistan and Iraq, but also its global position in relation to China — which represents the greatest threat to America’s economic and military hegemony.
William Cohen, the former US Defence Secretary, now CEO of the Cohen Group, who is among 25 business leaders visiting India, said: “India and the US are on an important and historic journey for the future. Close strategic co-operation and defence security tiers between the countries will be an important element in determining the success or failure of that journey in an ever more complicated and dangerous world.”
He is among 25 CEOs travelling to India this week for the business summit. Among the blue chip American companies represented in Delhi will be MetLife, Honeywell International, American International Group, Dow Chemical, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Pfizer and Continental Airlines.
The CEO Forum, led by William Harrison, the chairman of JP Morgan Chase, is expected to push for the lifting of restrictions on technology transfers, a mechanism for resolving trade disputes — especially on intellectual property rights — and the liberalisation of India’s financial sector.
Most of the opposition to the nuclear pact and Mr Bush’s presence in India comes from the Left and Muslim groups. More than a thousand Islamic protesters took to the streets of India’s financial capital, Bombay, yesterday shouting anti- American slogans. The Communist Party of India said it expected at least 50,000 people to demonstrate outside Parliament when Mr Singh and Mr Bush meet tomorrow.